Op-ed: Football in Mali unites vulnerable youth

Opinion: Ute Kollies is deployed in Mali as the Head of Office for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and is the organizer of Mali Football for Peace. Here, she talks about the impact for sport in uniting divided regions and football's ability to reduce recruitment into armed groups.

Children play with a donated soccer ball in Timbuktu.

“YEEEEES, we won!” shouted Hassane, captain of the Mopti football team, when they defeated Gao in Bamako late last year. The crowd cheered and promptly stormed the football field.

The team had come a long way. The soccer match was the first big step in an idea that came to me during a meeting with young men and women during my field missions to the Malian north, where people suffer from the impact of conflict and young men are particularly vulnerable to being recruited into criminal activities, trafficking, rebellion or even fundamentalist armed groups. They had nothing to do. Many schools were closed, and even the open schools suffered from long teacher strikes. In addition, many had stopped school in 2012 when terrorist groups took control of northern towns.

What could I do to give them something to focus on? I asked for their interests and many of them said “football”. So I started distributing footballs to all corners of northern and central Mali; Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal, Tessalit, Menaka, Mopti, Bourem, Taoudeni, Goundam and more. Some teams started to exercise and play regularly, share photos with me and I saw their focus and joy in playing the game.

So, I thought about organizing a football tournament in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, where many of them had never been. I was convinced that bringing these young men from different backgrounds and cultures together would lead to better understanding around something positive. I started to lobby for the idea and I was fortunate to find support from various UN and NGO partners, but also from private donations. All helped to support the effort to bring 60 young men to Bamako to live together for an eight-day soccer camp with cultural events, such as the wonderful marionettes by Yassouba Magassouba, music from northern Mali by Aratane N’akal, and discussions around topics of common interest. There was a lot of tea drinking with each other, cultural exchanges and mixing that encouraged learning about different languages, such as Bambara, Sonrhai, Peulh, Tamacheq, Arabic and Dogon.

For many, this was a first. Their first time in Bamako, first time on a plane, first time mixing with others from so many different parts of Mali. The first edition of the tournament was a success and the young participants went back to their home towns with many ideas about how to create a better understanding between the different cultures. They have started their own little projects, such as giving speeches in schools in the Tessalit/Kidal region, and offering the cup they won to all the population in Mopti, talking about their experiences in the local discussion groups and generally be more active in their communities regarding the prevention and resolution of conflict.

Their trainers were very involved in promoting the event over the radio in their local languages and a lot was learnt by all who participated. We are just completing the second round of the competition, with even more donors and the teams coming from southern and northern Mali. The third event is due to follow, and a final will crown the whole program.

We already have 60 young ambassadors, like Hassane, for peace and harmony. By the final, we will have over 200.

Photos: Nicholas Remene